Poker is often described as a game that takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. This is an accurate statement. Like any other complex skill-based activity, poker expertise is built upon layers that are individually learned and mastered. It’s like painting a picture: first to be learned and put on the canvas are the broad background strokes, then finer and finer details and layers are added until the entire picture is completely formed. When learning poker, we want to start with the big, broad strokes first. Once we’ve mastered those, we can move onto higher skill items and abilities in a logical, sequential order.
Traditionally, the ability or expertise of a poker player is described in terms of the “level” at which he or she thinks during a poker hand. In a sense, this level corresponds with the ability of a player to outsmart, out-think, and/or out-maneuver their opponents by staying a step ahead of them. This is precisely the reason why some people are able to consistently win at poker; they play at a higher level of thought than their opponents. It’s also the reason why so many people struggle at poker; they play at or below the levels of thought that their opponents are playing at.
So what exactly are these levels of thought? Traditionally, poker players are subdivided into five or more separate skill/ability categories. They are:
- Level 0 – “I know what poker is”: An L0 player has a basic understanding of the mechanics of the game. This includes knowledge of the rules of poker, what the rank of hands are, and how an individual hand of poker is dealt and played. This is clearly the bare minimum required to sit down at a table and play, but you won’t be a winning player at this level unless your opponents are completely ignorant, or are perhaps drunk or otherwise distracted.
- Level 1 – “I know what my cards are”: An L1 player knows what his own cards are and how strong they are in general terms. L1 players typically understand things like basic bet sizing, pot odds, draws, and so-called “ABC” poker, in which they bet strongly when they think their hand is strong, and fold when they don’t. Level-1 is where most amateur and recreational players operate (read: stagnate) in their abilities. Typically speaking, a solid L1 player can be a slight winning player at very small stakes, and possibly break even in higher stakes games. But more often than not, L1 players generally don’t make much money playing poker; they have the basic skill set to progress on, but they haven’t yet taken that next step up to L2 thinking.
- Level 2 – “I know what cards my opponent has”: An L2 player not only understands his own card strength and situation, he’s able to deduce what cards his opponent is probably holding. More importantly, an L2 player understands how to exploit this knowledge. Skills needed to master this level include hand reading, understanding how to apply pressure to your opponent, bluffing, and pot control. To become a consistent, long-term winner at mid-stakes poker, this is the minimum level of skill you need to attain in your poker education.
- Level 3 – “I know what cards my opponent thinks I have”: At this level of poker thought, the person is truly “playing the player.” He knows what range of cards his opponent has and he knows what range he himself is being put on by the opponent. The player can then counter and exploit this knowledge and force his opponent to make large, costly mistakes. Skills required to master this level include deception, adjustment, balance, and the ability to induce bluffs by our opponents. Because most of the regular, average winning players we face at mid-stakes games are operating on L2, professional players who want to earn a living at poker need to elevate to this L3 level of poker thought.
- Level 4 – “ I know what my opponent thinks that I think they have”: At L4, poker becomes a much deeper, psychological game. Aspects known as meta-game, setting up plays, image, and tilt control become vitally important to winning. And so on....
...but this means that you do have to elevate your thinking to a level above your opponent. If you don't, you cannot win in the long term. Period. And this in turn means you need to work at your game. You have to push your own personal envelope of skills and abilities. You have to actively work to get better than your opponents. You have to actively work to out-think and out-"level" them. This means hard work that builds, layer-upon-layer, on all the work you've done previously...
...which brings us back to MMA. A few decades ago, in what feels like a previous life, I mastered a highly complex and effective form of karate known as Kenpo. The years of training I went through at that time followed a fairly rigorous and well-defined course of study that all practitioners had to abide by. All beginners, for example, started at the lowest level of "fighting." This white-belt level was essentially a primer in basic self defense, where the student learned how to protect their vital points, how to fall, how to block, and essentially how to keep from incurring serious injury. We also began working at the rudiments of core conditioning and flexibility, which would be necessary for progressing up to the next higher, more strenuous belt levels of instruction.
As the Kenpo student progressed with their training and began to earn more advanced belts, offensive techniques were introduced, such as how to strike and kick. Different attack and defense scenarios were studied and broken down into manageable pieces. Sparring was a key part of training. Advanced blocking techniques were added, as well as evasive maneuvers that were designed to redirect blows from your opponent, and set up counter-strikes. Katas, or rigorous long and short forms of sequenced karate moves were learned, demonstrated, improved, and mastered. The core conditioning and flexibility work continued, but we also added in specific targeted exercises to improve our strikes, hits, and kicks.
At the highest belt levels of Kenpo, we were basically taught a much deeper level of the sport. In a sense, we moved from traditional karate into the realm of "playing the player." We learned to use our opponent’s actions against themselves, getting inside our their heads, and thereby inducing mistakes that opened them up for attack and, ultimately, defeat. The goal throughout all this training was to become better prepared, more skilled, and more physically fit than the guy we were going to face in the ring-- or on the street. We did this by moving up in levels of skills and conditioning, step-by-step, belt-by-belt, adding to and building upon what we learned in the previous levels.
In a sense, learning poker is a lot like learning karate. At the lowest level of training, we’re focused on staying out of trouble. We learn our own hand strength and how to play ABC poker. We learn how to fold. We learn how to bet and raise. We learn how to observe. As we progress up through the thought levels and stakes, we add in how to attack and counter the attacks of our opponents. We learn how to play the player, open them up for attack and, ultimately, defeat.
And this is what poker is all about: out-thinking, out-leveling, and out-playing your opponents. Maybe we should call it black belt poker...
All-in for now...